Whatever one may think of Luc Besson’s oeuvre, his films work best when they live up to their trashy potential. The director’s cinema is littered with all-out demented interludes and comic-book exaggerations. Think of Rihanna quoting Paul Verlaine’s poem “A Poor Young Shepherd” while gyrating on a stripper pole in his intergalactic romp Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; or, more recently, Russian supermodel Sasha Luss mowing down throngs of thugs inside a restaurant in Anna. Besson’s always been particularly fluent in the art of the unreal, and Dogman, his latest, is engineered as one such tale: a pulpy story of an outcast who turns a whole pack of dogs into loyal allies in his fight against injustice. But the film never owns up to its deranged premise, and a staid, predetermined script sands off its most shamelessly ridiculous moments––the only moments when Dogman truly comes to life.
Besson has spent a good chunk of his long career tracking women who fight back after a lifetime of abuses at the hands of men––a leitmotif that harks all the way back to La Femme Nikita. But that emphasis on female empowerment is often undercut, to various degrees, by a tendency to leer at their slick bodies as they gunned their way toward salvation. Dogman makes for an abrupt departure, yet the director’s voyeurism remains prominent: this time not at a woman-turned-assassin in skintight clothes, but a man in a wheelchair. Titular “Dogman” Douglas (Caleb Landry Jones) is a thirty-something New Jersey bloke who all but lost use of his legs after sustaining a gunshot wound in childhood, and there are moments when this film veers dangerously close to the same exploitative cruelty Darren Aronofsky poured into his portrait of oversized Brendan Fraser in The Whale. All through Dogman does Douglas suffer, struggle, and confront his disability; he’s still bestowed with a modicum of agency, yet Besson couches his misery as a spectacle.
The young man was shot by his father, a detail we’re fed shortly after Douglas is brought to prison in the film’s preamble. Caught roaming Jersey dressed in drag––with blood on his bedecked face and about two-dozen canines in the back of his van––he’s assigned a psychiatrist (Jojo T. Gibbs) determined to find out the truth about his past and the nefarious events that put him behind bars. As written by Besson, Dogman unfurls a chronological procession of flashbacks prompted by the doctor’s questions. We’re made to witness Douglas’s horrifying upbringing and introduced to his family: an abusive father who’d lock him up with the same dogs he’d starve and send to die in illegal fights; an older brother who’d take pleasure in watching his sibling suffer unnamable humiliations; and a mother who would one day flee home forever. It’s not that the backstory is relatively predictable, with Besson ticking every box in the troubled-child-turned-monster template; it’s that Dogman treats these events as causal links and proceeds to extend its consequential logic to everything that follows. This isn’t a film to be experienced so much as an equation to be solved.
Everything is orchestrated to explain why Douglas became the person he is: a Robin Hood-like avenger with a staunch belief in the redistribution of wealth, if one goes by Besson’s portrait of him, or (per one of several enemies) the devil himself. All the jigsaw-puzzle pieces fit, eventually. What doesn’t––any facet of Douglas’s life that does not advance the film’s problem-solving approach––is concealed and left out. We do not get a real sense of Douglas’s inner life because Besson isn’t interested in dissecting that beyond some perfunctory glimpses of his subject’s solitude or platitudes that turn his exchanges with the psychiatrist into hollow Socratic dialogues, where ruminations on free will vie with deep musings like “dogs do not lie when they talk about love.” In that, Dogman echoes another recent avenger’s tale, Todd Phillips’s Joker, a film with which Besson’s doesn’t just share the same A-to-B design, but also, curiously, a similar fictional locale. Dogman is only nominally set in New Jersey; shot by Colin Wandersman in putrid fish-tank greens and brought to moribund life by production designer Hugues Tissandier, the town suggests an imaginary setting à la Gotham City. (A drone shot of a train snaking its way through the city is more-or-less identical to an early one in Joker.)
“Where is all the shit?” isn’t a sentence I’d ever expected to jot down about a film featuring herds of dogs crammed in a dilapidated high school. But Dogman is stashed with so many flagrant inconsistencies, and while criticizing it for its dubious logic would be to play in Besson’s hands––this is, after all, a world where canines communicate almost telepathically with their guardian and ransack the mansions of New Jersey’s wealthiest like the high-schoolers in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring––the film straddles both camp and tragedy, and it’s the shaky balance between the two that makes these bugs so strident. Besson hopscotches from slapstick comedy to lachrymose junctures where Landry Jones is asked to conjure a sense of catharsis Dogman never really earns. His performance is a showcase of primal gestures and bare-breasted torment, but what the actor’s tasked with embodying isn’t a character, only the chrysalis of one. The result is a farce that’s only fitfully rollicking; even its gruesome climax is spoiled by a screenplay that had long warned us this is where we were heading. All that’s left to do is connect the dots.
Dogman premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.